Pittsburgh is a vibrant ecosystem for high tech companies

Pittsburgh old and new
Credit: Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance

If you think Silicon Valley has a lock on all things technology, think again. Pittsburgh is nurturing and growing a new generation of technology innovators.

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It's been three decades since I moved away from the Pittsburgh area. Fresh out of college and newly married, my husband and I left "the Steel City" for economic reasons. We couldn't find jobs. We weren't alone. In 1983, the unemployment rate for the greater Pittsburgh area was 18%. Even our newly minted university technical degrees couldn't help us in a town with a dying steel industry and not much more.

I've barely given Pittsburgh's economy a thought since moving to Texas 33 years ago. Then the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance invited me back for an opportunity to tour the city's growing technology ecosystem. Wow, what an eye opener!

The river banks that were once home to Pittsburgh's mammoth steel mills have been cleared out, cleaned up and turned over to gleaming new buildings housing organizations like the Pittsburgh Technology Council (PTC) and the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Entertainment Technology Center. A long-shuttered 100-year old Nabisco factory has been redeveloped and is now a modern technology hub occupied by Google and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Technology Development Center, and across the street, TechShop Pittsburgh. Century-old buildings in the Strip District and Station Square are now home to high tech companies that have spun out of local universities and incubators.

What was old and obsolete has been reborn to support a thriving and mutually supportive tech community. In short, Pittsburgh has become the cool place to launch and grow a high tech company — and it's much cheaper to live and work in western Pennsylvania than in Silicon Valley.

This tech-oriented renaissance is no accident. State and local community leaders have developed a strong ecosystem to support new companies from the conception phase through startup funding and mentorship to larger growth. Local organizations like the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the Regional Investors Council work with their counterparts at the state level to ensure that businesses, especially startups, have what they need to get established, grow and – most importantly – stay in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Local educational institutions are a key part of the tech boom as well. Two of the most prominent universities contributing to the innovation are the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), which is highly touted for its school of engineering, and Carnegie Mellon University, world-renown for computer science and robotics. I spent a day meeting with some of the top-notch researchers and students at CMU who are developing things like new computer interfaces, glare-reducing headlights, robotic-assisted prostheses, 3D editing of 2D images, and more.

One novel thing that CMU does is put together multi-disciplinary teams of students and give them projects. A team might consist of students studying engineering, computer science, art, communications and architecture. Their project draws on strengths from all those disciplines and teaches the students how to work together on a diverse team. Best of all, any intellectual property they develop belongs to them. CMU excels in helping students commercialize products from their university projects.

In fact, I met with several companies that were spin-offs from CMU research. Deeplocal calls itself an innovation studio that often incorporates technology into advertising experiences. For example, in 2009 Deeplocal worked with W+K Portland to build the Nike Chalkbot, a tweet-fed, chalk-spraying hydraulic robot that traveled the roads of the Tour de France printing messages of inspiration for the Livestrong Foundation.

Another innovative company with CMU roots is RE2, Inc., a leading developer of Intelligent Modular Manipulation Systems. RE2 robotic arms can be used in all types of situations that aren't suitable for humans, such as cutting the live wires of improvised explosive devices in war zones, or picking up rocks on other planets. They also can be integrated into assistive devices like wheelchairs to help people with disabilities reach for things. In fact, such a wheelchair is in development at the University of Pittsburgh Human Engineering Research Lab.

While Pittsburgh's universities provide a great environment for young people to learn how to develop and apply technology for future commercial applications, it's the support from local incubators, accelerators and venture capital groups that really get companies going. For instance, Innovation Works (IW) plays a vital role in southwestern Pennsylvania's technology economy. IW invests capital, business expertise and other resources into high-potential companies with the greatest likelihood for regional economic impact. IW has invested over $60 million in more than 160 technology startups, and in turn those companies have been a magnet for creating thousands of new jobs and attracting follow-on capital to the region.

Two programs within IW are AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear. Both are startup accelerator programs that help innovative companies launch quickly and successfully. Companies chosen for the programs receive funding, mentorship and office space. AlphaLab’s intensive 20-week program helps companies achieve product-market fit through rapid iterations of product, intensive customer feedback and market validation. AlphaLab Gear is for hardware and robotics startups, and the participants go through a 40- week program.

Among the many now successful high tech companies that are veterans of these accelerator programs are:

  • 4moms, an innovative baby gear company that has redefined the juvenile industry through the use of advanced robotics
  • Identified Technologies, which provides teams of flying robots to collect data quicker, more frequently, and in a more scalable fashion than today’s labor intensive or imprecise manned aerial and satellite methods
  • NetBeez, which has developed a distributed network monitoring system that measures and reports key performance indicators of network and service quality
  • SolePower, a company that makes energy harvesting shoe insoles that allow you to generate power to charge your mobile devices

Further extending the tech ecosystem is the Pittsburgh Technology Council (PTC). Companies at all growth stages use the PTC to build new business, connect to capital, grow a workforce and make headlines. More than 1,300 strong, PTC members cut across Pittsburgh’s tech sector from hardware and IT to Life Sciences and Application developers. When you include a range of professional service firms, the PTC is the largest regional IT trade association in the nation.

It's easy for me to see that a lot has changed in Pittsburgh in the three decades since I left. Even Google is constructing another building next to its bakery-turned-office-complex facility. I'm thrilled to see my hometown area has become a thriving hub for high technology and is providing opportunities for so many people that want a good job in an affordable city that is at the top of Forbes' list of Most Livable Cities.

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